By Jake Howorth
At the holiday break, the North York Rangers’ season is pencilled in as a successful campaign so far. They sit third in the tough South Division where only four points separate them from first. This is the same division where four teams have over 50 points. The Wellington Dukes are the only other team in the OJHL past the half-century mark. The journey to get to this spot came with some hard lessons along the way.
The moment the Rangers started to show off their potential to challenge for a championship was in the mist of a four-game losing streak. It ended in back-to-back shutout losses to Buffalo and Georgetown. The team and coaches had a long meeting afterwards and since they’ve gone 16-2-2-1.
Captain Kyle Clarke believed there was one aspect that stopped the tailspin.
“We didn’t panic. We know we have a special team this year and that we are a good team,” the second-year captain said. “We lost that swagger a bit on that four-game skid, but once we stepped back and took a breath, we realized we are still a good team and we needed to start thinking that we were. It wasn’t a switch, it took time but we finally figured it out and we haven’t looked back since.”
Second-year head coach Geoff Schomogyi wants his team to play aggressive and defensive minded. Getting back to that style is what defensemen Peter Muzyka thinks was the key to the turnaround. “We got back to the basics and remembered what made us successful in the past,” the Cornell product said.” We got away from our style of play for a but there, so we just made sure we got back to what worked.”
One of the critical question marks ahead of the season was the depth scoring. They brought in pieces late into training camp with Grayden Gottschalk and Noah Jordan. It took awhile to find the right line combination and to jell, but now it’s clicking. Rookie Jesse Tucker has shown his offensive abilities recording 30 points in 36 games. It shows at all lines produce at different times, while all were able to play a defensive structure. Clarke, who’s third on the red and white with 30 points is simply impressed with the depth up front.
“When or team is healthy and all four lines are rolling it can be scary. We have someone for every roll. Guys that can score a big goal when your down by one,” he explained. “We have those guys that you can match up against someone’s number one line and shut them down. We also have those guys that can hold off a team when we are up by one with two minutes left. It’s a very special versatile group that has the depth to do it all.”
Eight different North York players average a half a point per game, including the impressive two-way forwards of Ross Kreiger and Nick Campoli From the beginning, the defence imposed their will on opposing offences and it hasn’t changed. They surrendered the second least amount of shots per game at 29.26. Muzkya benefits the ability of how all seven defensemen work together but know there’s one area the entire group can improve on.
“An area we can improve is definitely our offence. As a whole, we aren’t generating much offensively so that’s probably the biggest thing we need to work on.” Sam Hunter is the only Ranger blue-liner with more than 15 points.
Of course, your defence is only as good as the goalie in the crease. Saying the combination of Jett Alexander and Colby Muise has been spectacular is a substantial underestimate. Both goalies are counted on to make massive saves at pivotal moments in games.
Alexander was recently the starter for Canada East Team at this past World Junior A Challenge. He will also participate at the CJHL top prospect game in Mississauga in late January. The Bloomfield native contains the fourth best save percentage (.932%) and five highest goals against average (2.07). The most recent OJHL goalie of the month, Muise sits first in both categories. While his partner played the tournament in Nova Scotia, Muise won five of his previous six starts. The dynamic duo is by far tops of the league. Majority of the time championship teams are anchored by the goalie. The Rangers are in a pretty amazing spot since both can be called upon down the stretch.
A ton of games come down to special teams. The Achillesheell for last year’s team was the penalty kill since it ranked dead last at just over 74%. This campaign, coach Schomogyi emphasized improving that category. A year later the Rangers are 91.9% when a man down, only allowing 12 goals on 154 chances. The glaring area that needs to be improved in is the power play, converting only 14.4%. Recently, the unit has shown positive signs with the man advantage, going 4-for-10 in their last four games.
It may seem this article is pumping the tires of North York’s 2017 season, but in the months of November and December, that’s all one can really do. They’ve gone 14-2-1-2 in that span and other than maybe netting in a couple more goals at times, there aren’t many negatives to point out. This squad is very well coach under Schomogyi and company. All the forwards take pride in playing a 200-foot game and being responsible. The seven defensemen can be put out in all situations. A perfect example is while Joey Maziarz was in the World Junior A Challenge for most of December rookie Dante Fantauzzi took over beside Hunter and didn’t look out of place.
From day one of camp the coaches and players made the expectation of winning a championship. That goal wasn’t placed for the sake of it, everyone from the top down truly believed in it. Muzyka and Clarke touched on a couple aspects the Rangers need to carry in 2018 to keep the mission alive and well come playoffs.
“The team just needs to make sure we play NYR hockey and focus on what makes us successful,” Muzkya stated. “We’ve seen already how good we can be when we are on top of our game and we just need to bring that into the second half of the year.”
“We need to keep our confidence and swagger that we are a good team,” Clarke said. “We have to stay tight in the room and make sure everyone stays focused on our goal and that we stay on the same page. I feel like the only way we will lose is if we beat ourselves.”
North York is officially hitting the home stretch of the season. If this trend continues of playing defensively sound, play-makers coming up big and goalies stealing the show at times, no team will want to step on the ice with the Rangers come playoffs.
Photo by John Lewis / OJHL Images